I read a sad story the other day. It said that nearly half of all Americans die with no significant financial assets, that a ridiculously high number wind up with nothing more than Social Security to fund their golden years.
I wish it surprised me, and I wish I thought it was going to get better anytime soon.
Oh, it may eventually. I’m not holding my children up as typical — they are anything but — when it comes to being prepared, but both of them have made saving for retirement a priority since their first jobs after college. If anyone who didn’t inherit a million dollars will be prepared, they will.
Of course, they aren’t living the typical “American Dream,” which these days seem to mean buying a bigger television with more bells and whistles every time one becomes available and gobbling up every new, trendy you that comes along. I’m not sure it is still true — I’ve not seen the numbers recently — but for years, the percentage of their salaries that typical Americans were saving slipped below zero.
It’s ironic. I saw a question asked by a pollster a few years ago asking Americans their opinion of which of the following three occurrences would be most disastrous for the American economy:
1. A $1 per gallon increase in the price of gasoline.
2. Ten percent inflation.
3. A 10 percent increase in the personal savings rate.
It’s stunning to realize that the worst possible occurrence for the economy would be the third choice, because if people started saving 10 percent more of their money, it would be that were spending 10 percent less. A 10 percent decline in consumer spending would be disastrous. In fact, a decline in consumer spending is one reason the 2007-09 recession has hung around for as long as it has.
My grandparents had one television in their house for the entire time I knew them. They didn’t watch TV in bed, or in the kitchen, or out on the porch. Their TV set was in the living room, and they didn’t change it because a newer, better model came along. They only time they changed sets — with the exception of switching from black and white to color — was when one of their sets wore out.
My parents were pretty much the same. They had more than one set, but they didn’t change for trendy reasons or in response to advertising. They changed when a set wore out.
My neighbors — and I hate to single them out, so I won’t mention names — have a big-screen, HD television on their patio.
God bless the consumer society.
Of course, we live in a community of relatively well-off senior citizens. There aren’t many people here who will die with nothing, God willing and the creek don’t rise.
As for me, I wish I could be proud of myself. Any prosperity I have has had little to do with me and everything to do with my wife. I look around my office and I see a wall of books and hundreds of movies on DVD. I see souvenirs of my career and all sorts of other stuff. I wonder if I would have been happier had I led a more ascetic life, but I suppose I will never know.
I didn’t rise above my culture.
I wallowed in it.